A stitch in time

Historical society pleased with astronomical clock with ties to Hagerstown

Historical society pleased with astronomical clock with ties to Hagerstown

May 25, 2008|By JULIE E. GREENE

$101,750 for a clock.

It's a tall clock - almost nine feet high.

It's also pretty impressive, with four dials that show the hour, date, day of week and month of the year, plus a second hand. Above the dials is a revolving graphic showing the phases of the moon - thus its designation as an "astronomical" clock - and there are meticulous inlaid designs in the mahogany case.

But what led officials with the Washington County Historical Society to pay $101,750 for this astronomical, and some might think astronomically expensive, clock?

Two words: Hager's Town.

Those words appear on the clock face, as does the name of the Hagerstown clockmaker who sold the Federal-style clock, John Reynolds.


Reynolds' business as a brass founder, silversmith and watchmaker was advertised in Hagerstown from 1797 to 1808, according to "Maryland Clockmakers."

John C. Newcomer, vice president of the historical society and an antiques expert, said it's not confirmed that Reynolds actually made the clock, though he might have made the mechanism because he owned a brass foundry. Often, clockmakers contracted with a cabinetmaker to make the case.

The grandfather clock, or tall-case clock, as it's called in the antiques and clockmaking worlds, was sold on March 8 at the estate auction of John H. Bast Jr., a well-known Boonsboro resident. Newcomer, who organized and catalogued the auction, said there were two other bidders with intense interest.

Katie Hershey, a historical society board member who felt strongly about buying the clock, was at the auction. Her husband, Todd, a member of the collections committee, cast the winning bid.

"Do we want these things for generations of Washington Countians to be able to see ... the finest clockmaker example of (our history), or do we say 'Look at it in a book'?" she said.

"I just felt that if our organization is about preserving our county history, that we couldn't let that opportunity pass us by," she said.

"It is a keystone of our collection, because The Miller House is known for its wonderful clock collection and to have (the Reynolds clock) so close to us and the possibility of ... letting it go would have been a real travesty," Hershey said.

Valuing a timepiece

If you think $101,750 is a lot for the clock, consider this: Newcomer considers the clock to be one of the five or so most important American tall case clocks in existence.

And $101,750 is not even close to the price ceiling for antique clocks. Winterthur Museum & Country Estate outside Wilmington, Del., paid $1,688,000 for a Queen Anne-style, carved and figured mahogany grandfather clock made by famed Philadelphia cabinetmaker Peter Stretch, circa 1740, at a Sotheby's auction in October 2004. (Check it out at

Newcomer said the Reynolds clock, if in pristine condition, might have fetched as much as $250,000. But it has a bit of hidden damage. The interior of the hood, the cabinet that covers the top of the clock, has visible burn damage.

But simply being an astronomical tall case clock makes the Reynolds clock rare, Newcomer said.

"Some of these clocks do bring that (amount of money) if they are rare," said Carter Harris, curator for the National Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia, Pa. "It just depends who wants it, I guess, and how rare it is."

Jeannine Disviscour, the deputy director for collections for the Maryland Historical Society museum in Baltimore, confirmed that an astronomical tall case clock from Maryland with an 18th-century connection is rare.

"Things that have an 18th-century connection are important for us to have in museum collections and to keep in Maryland, because there (are) not as many of them," she said.

She added that the value of an antique is not set. People often ask her how much an antique is worth.

"The answer is the price is what the market will bear," she said.

Open to the public

Hershey said $101,750 seems like an incredible amount of money, but there was a strong possibility the clock could have instead gone to a private collection where the public would not have a chance to see it.

That happened the previous time the clock was sold at auction, Newcomer said. He remembers seeing the clock at an estate auction in 1984. There were three buyers interested in the clock back then. Two didn't buy it because it was too tall for their homes, Newcomer said. Bast bought it for $17,000

The clock, which is not currently working, now stands in the corner of the rear drawing room of The Miller House.

"It's well worth everything that we'll need to do to get the money to buy it," Hershey said. The historical society had the money to buy the clock, but depleted its funds in doing so. So historical society officials are discussing fundraising options.

"For the organization to be able to afford the people of our county with that opportunity to see something like that (clock), I just think it is priceless," Hershey said.

If you go ...

WHAT: Astronomical tall case clock, circa 1797 to 1808, associated with Hagerstown clockmaker John Reynolds

WHEN: The Miller House is open for tours from 1 to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays.

WHERE: The Miller House, 135 W. Washington St., downtown Hagerstown

COST: Admission costs $5 for adults; $3 for ages 60 and older and students 13 and older; free for students 12 and younger and Washington County Historical Society members

CONTACT: For more information, call 301-797-8782.

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